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I am a mid-level employee that is managing the projects of a few "lower level" employees in the office. These projects normally are lower priority projects that don't have a critical due date. For example, fixing bugs in code, running through protocol checklists for compliance purposes, and general maintenance I can't get to when I have an abundance of critical priority issues to fix as soon as possible (according to my boss).

Right now, I have an employee that is making significantly more work for me than they resolve. I have gone through the steps of creating documentation on the task, providing resources to look into problems when I am unavailable, and making sure they clearly understand the scope of their project or task. None of that seems to be helping. The employee is making little to no progress on their work and seems to have a gap in knowledge with the field overall. I did not hire this person but from working with them they do not show the necessary skills to do the job.

While this person doesn't show the skill to do the job, they definitely have the motivation to learn. Considering I have provided everything I can on a task, I can't see anymore things I can do to help this person succeed in the job. I don't know where the line is between an employee problem or a bad management problem on my part. This is my first time managing other employees so I don't want to be considered part of the "bad management" epidemic in most workplaces.

For this situation I have a few questions:

  • Is this an actual issue with my managerial skills and if so, what are some recommended methods to go about fixing my mistakes?
  • Am I giving too much information on a topic where the employee might think they don't have to do research on their own?
  • Are there any steps I should take professionally before escalating this to HR to make sure this is in fact an employee problem and not an issue with my management?

I have also read through How should a manager handle an employee who lacks intuition? but that question seems to be more focused on handling an employee that is just doing the wrong work, in my case the work just isn't having progress made at all. I should also add that the employee in my question works an opposite shift of me so the only communication I have is through email, phone calls, or issue tracking in repositories. However, I have made myself completely available to contact me on my off-hours during their shift but they rarely contact me during their designated shift time.

  • So just to clarify, do you think the issue is that the employee in question is struggling with company procedures that they could be trained on if appropriate, or that they would lack the requisite domain knowledge to comprehend the procedures? (i.e. they lack entry-level knowledge required for that position). Knowledge gaps can be managed, but a lack of baseline, for example, can be much harder. Think: I need to analyze data generated by procedure A but I don't know how to use the software vs. I don't know how to start the analysis, use a PC, etc. – CKM Apr 6 '18 at 14:25
  • @CKM they have basic skills and understanding. I am curious about finding out if the issue is with my management or a fault with them in this job. I don't want to directly attribute their lack in work to laziness since they have motivation to progress in the field and company, but overall I don't know what steps to take to make sure it isn't an issue with me and indeed something going on with them. – BelethorsGeneralGoods Apr 6 '18 at 14:33
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    My answer would be identical to HLGEM's answer, create a plan to train this employee, then execute that plan. If the employee is unable to meet the achievable goals of the plan, go to the next phase of the plan (i.e. that performance improvement plan), if they still fail to achieve those goals get rid of them. – Donald Apr 6 '18 at 14:50
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    @BelethorsGeneralGoods That's actually really good for the average small company, I'd say. HLGEM has a good answer at this point, but instead of a sweeping training at this point we're coming into PIP territory which in some professions is sort of like last-straw "coaching" before you have to consider letting them go. Definitely make attempts to get performance issues acknowledged by the employee in writing. IANAL, but you can still construe termination for performance as wrongful if the employee wasn't informed timely enough that they weren't performing, even in right-to-work states. – CKM Apr 6 '18 at 17:12
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    Especially if the employee handbook has a structured process about handling these situations. Not common, but feasible is all I'm saying. And written acknowledgements that attempts were made to improve performance prior to termination are always good to have anyways. – CKM Apr 6 '18 at 17:13
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If there is a skills problem, then identify the missing skills and create a plan for the person to get them. This could be informal mentoring, formal training, or many different things. Make it clear when you present this to the person, that getting the skills is not optional. If they don't get the skills their job is at risk.

Discuss the procedure for dealing with an incompetent employee with HR. This doesn't have to be a discussion where you name anyone, just that as a manager, you feel you need to understand the process. This will help keep you from making any mistakes that could cause legal issues.

It is normal that one employee may take more time than the rest of them put together. From Wikipedia:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital 
few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, 
roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

In other words, 1 employee out of five causes 80% of the managerial actions you need to take. That is just the way the world works and does not reflect on you as a manager. However, what does reflect on you as a manager is how you handle those issues created by this employee.

It is fair to make the performance expectations known and it is fair to let the person know that they are not meeting those expectations and it is fair to give them a chance to meet them. It is not fair to the rest of the team to support an incompetent indefinitely. As a manager, you have to be able to to handle difficult conversations about poor performance and be able to handle letting someone go if they don't fix the performance. You have made a start by trying to give the person the tools they need to do the job, now you need to move to the phase of determining where the skills gap is and coming up with a plan to fix. then you need to have that first difficult conversation.

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